Egypt And The American Left

For half a century the New York Review of Books has been the sensible voice of the American left-of-center educated elite. Its coverage of Egypt in the last three eventful years has been equally sensible. Its frequent voice is that of Yasmine El Rashidi whose dispatches from Cairo are invariably worth reading, echoing the view of broadly secular and liberal Egyptians. A critique of her dispatches came in the fiftieth anniversary issue of the magazine from none other than Tom Hayden, who came out of hibernation to challenge her latest article. We can not fathom the motives of the man whose last sensible, if transient, action was to become the second Mr. Barbarella. But we can focus on his words.

From nine time zones away, Mr. Hayden opens his letter by accusing Cairo-resident Ms. El Rashidi of “ignoring or denying” Egyptian evidence. He closes his letter by a prediction that the US is being swept into “another sectarian civil war” in the Middle East. In between he quotes a jumble of semi-facts, including some by his erstwhile co-star in the Vietnam drama, John McCain. And all under the guise of defending democracy. Nor is he alone. Similar views were recently echoed by Stephen McInerney and Cole Bockenfeld who work at the ironically named “Project on Middle East Democracy”.

How did it come to this? How did the American left, especially the aging New Left, come to be advocates of the Muslim Brotherhood. How did a group with elastic views of social and sexual limits come to defend a religiously narrow, socially coercive, oppressively puritanical and decidedly misogynistic cult ? The reader would be wrong to assume that there is a long and complex answer to this question. The reasons are simple, and basically come down to two factors : ignorance of Egyptian history and adherence to outmoded templates of thinking inculcated by long decades in the trenches of the cold war.

To many on the left the current situation in Egypt echoes that of Chile 40 years ago, where the military removed a democratically elected but dangerously delusional man from power. No sensible man can praise Pinochet. But the Left has never forgiven him for three acts that violate their world view : removing the communist Allende and brutally cracking down on the left while retaining popular support, improving Chile’s economy by non-socialist means, and giving up power peacefully after losing a referendum. The Left does not fear that Egypt might descend into chaos; that would only prove their view of the perfidious behavior of the “Imperialist West”. What they must deeply fear is that Egypt would actually emerge in a better shape, dealing yet another blow to long-held views.

Another factor contributing to the confused analysis of current Egyptian events is a broad ignorance of Egyptian history. The Left retains a belief in the goodness of “authentic” national movements, especially when they espouse anti-Western rhetoric. Often the “authenticity” is one of form and mere convenience, for these movements are clearly modern products and are heavily influenced by Western thought, especially the anti-liberal Communist and Fascist ideologies. The Brotherhood is simply the latest beneficiary of Putumayo chic.

All these facts would be amusing if they didn’t threaten to confuse and derail sensible American policy in the region, especially toward Egypt. The current hyper-nationalism is irritatingly off-key and potentially lethal. But Egypt will not be pulled back from it by either angry words or sulking inaction. There is little the US can do for Egypt aside from being a sensible friend and an occasional supporter of an improved economy and a more liberal society. And we can start by ditching bad ideas and feverish words, for improvement will take time and demands a focus on Egypt as it is today, rather than a construct of the cold and cultural wars.

— Maged Atiya

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